The inevitable has happened. BJD supremo and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has finally wielded his dreaded axe, which many suspected was rusting in his fourth term, on his Agriculture Minister Dr. Damodar Rout. The decision was not entirely unexpected because he had been embarrassing the party, its leader and his ministerial colleagues for far too long and far too frequently for their comfort. Clearly, he was being given a long rope, only to be hung with it in the end.
The decision is significant for three reasons. First, this was the first occasion in his 17 years as Chief Minister when Naveen has sacked someone for his loose tongue. During this period, he has sacked nearly three dozen ministers but has never bothered to explain the reason, except in the case of the troika of Nalinikanta Mohanty, Prashanta Nanda and Kamala Das, who were apparently dismissed for being under the ‘shadow of corruption’ in his first term. Even while sacking senior leader and former Finance minister Prafulla Ghadai (who was not a minister at the time), he has not gone beyond attributing the decision to the broad category of ‘anti-party’ activities without specifying the exact charge against him. In this backdrop, it is significant that Naveen has taken pains to explain that Dr. Rout was punished for his casteist remarks. It was perhaps meant as a warning to others in the party to refrain from making comments denigrating any particular caste, community or religion as the party gears up for the 2019 elections.
Secondly, the BJD supremo has sent out an unambiguous message by not giving the veteran party leader, who was very close to Biju Patnaik and fancied himself as the true heir of the great man’s legacy, an honourable exit by asking for his resignation. Rout thus had the ignominy of being the first minister in his cabinet to be ‘dismissed’ outright after the troika. When he was dropped from the ministry, allegedly at the behest of the late Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, in 2006, he was given the opportunity to go gracefully by resigning. In refusing to extend the same courtesy to him this time, Naveen has made it clear that he has had enough of the nonsense that the motor-mouth from Paradip revels in.
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Thirdly, through his decision, Naveen has sought to dispel the impression that he has lost his ‘sting’ that made party leaders and ministers cower in fear in the past. For a while now, especially since he began his fourth term as Chief Minister, he has been uncharacteristically tolerant of transgressions by party leaders and ministers. Several observers attributed his reluctance to act to his advancing age and falling health, losing grip over the party and the government and uncertainty about the future. In one fell swoop, he has laid all such speculation to rest and shown that his axe has not lost its edge after all.
Of course, Dama had it coming for far too long. Starting with his blatantly casteist remark against Harijans in Jagatsinghpur in 2010 (the case is being heard in the Orissa High Court) to the latest remark describing Brahmins as ‘beggars’ at the Malyabanta festival in Malkangiri on Monday, the list of his transgressions is long. Casteist remarks apart, he has also been embarrassing the party and his government with his recent remarks on farmer suicides, Jayee Rajguru’s status as a freedom fighter and women (Remember his ‘Swami Chhadi Anaganwadi’ shocker against BJP spokesperson Lekhashri Samantsinghar?). Why, he even had the cheek to all but accuse the lady spokesperson of another party of sleeping her way to the position on live television! [Ironically, the same woman leader now appears in TV debates for Dama’s own party!]
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With no action – not even a reprimand – being taken against him by the leader, Dama got progressively more outrageous with each transgression. His obsession with being in the headlines saw him come up with one shocker after another at frightening regularity. On its part, the media – especially TV - has been far too indulgent of him because he has always been a byte-hunter’s delight, ever ready to talk on anything under the sun and to give that controversial one-liner that makes the TV reporter's day. No wonder TV camera crews have rushed to him for a byte even when the issue at hand has no bearing with him either as a party leader or a minister. Nor has he been shy of talking disparagingly about his colleagues in the council of ministers. But the limits of this indulgence were seen yesterday when he gave a byte to the camera crews of only two channels and turned the others away.
Where does Dama Rout go from here? Having just celebrated his 76th birthday, the chances of the Paradip leader coming back into reckoning in the BJD are extremely remote. There has been speculation for quite some time now that the erstwhile Biju favourite has read the writing on the wall. Having realised that he is unlikely to be fielded again in 2019, he has reportedly been grooming his son to take his mantle in Paradip. But in the changed scenario, his son may well have to pay the price for his indiscretions.
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Unfortunately for the veteran leader, his exit is unlikely to be mourned by anyone - either within the party or outside - except perhaps some of his diehard loyalists in Paradip and, yes, a section of the TV media!